Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974-2006)


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
84 min., rated R.
Grade: A

Though not as splattery, gory, or exploitative as the title or its reputation states, director Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is the most shocking and influential horror-suspense-exploitation picture in the annals of the genre, no, of all American cinema. From John Larroquette's opening narration and crawl, cutting to the popping flashbulbs and flashes of decomposing corpses, to the sight of a skeleton statue atop a grave and a dead armadillo along the road, we know this isn't going to be sunshine and ponies. 

It was supposed to be a fun afternoon on August 18, 1973. Riding through rural Texas, a van of five hippie teens—couples Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and Jerry (Allen Danziger), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Kirk (William Vail), and Sally's nagging, wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain)—get lost on the open road trying to visit the Hardestys' grandfather's grave. From there, they go to visit the abandoned house that the siblings used to visit as kids. After wrongly picking up a half-witted hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) whose family runs the local slaughterhouse, the old redneck pulls out a scalpel, slicing his own hand and Franklin's arm. As the sun goes down, Pam and Kirk split off from their friends, coming across a farmhouse in the backwoods. The property turns out to be owned by the Sawyer family, cannibalistic, chainsaw-loving crazies. 

Claustrophobic, disturbing, and disquieting, "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is hard to watch and not for all tastes, but that's the point and goes without saying. As controversial as it was at the time, the film is tame in terms of gore and violence when compared to today's standards. An effective approach, most of the bloody violence is implied behind closed doors rather than shown in explicit detail. That said, its stripped-down spareness doesn't take away from the breathless, emotionally exhausting discomfort it inflicts upon you. Daniel Pearl's grainy, documentary-style camerawork is what makes this feel all too real and gripping. Even for a raw, low-budget item, this is impressive filmmaking. In particular, the camera dollies under a swing and follows one character to the front porch of the Sawyer house. Also, the pacing is lean, the production design of bones and chicken feathers covering the Sawyers' living room is memorably grotesque, and the sound design of pigs squealing is unnerving. It also doesn't hurt that the '70s time period has the Charles Manson slayings hanging over this story, itself loosely based upon the Ed Gein case in Minnesota of the 1950s (as was 1960's "Psycho"). 

Hooper has crafted a blood-curdling nightmare that cuts into the bleakest corners of human nature in even the broad daylight. At the first sight of the stocky, flesh-wearing figure that would eventually be known as Leatherface, he hammers his first victim on the head and pulls the sliding steel door shut. The sound is hard to shake. Later, the notorious "family dinner scene" with Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), the psycho hitchhiker (Edwin Neal), the cook father (Jim Siedow), Grandpa, and a tied-up Sally, is intensely frightening and jarring with close-ups of Sally's glassy, fearful eyes. Burns is the archetypcal "final girl," giving a traumatizing portrayal as Sally with a piercing scream to match. As the screaming, blood-caked Sally escapes and runs from Leatherface and his buzzing chainsaw, she hops onto the back of a stopped pickup truck and it drives away. We feel her safety. She's laughing hysterically, but we're not. Want some barbecue?




The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

Tobe Hooper returns back to Leatherface and his crazed clan of Texas butchers with fetishes for cannibalism and cutlery in this nutso, subversive follow-up. At the time of its theatrical release, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" was not well-received, as it opted for satire on all-American family values and black comedy rather than duplicating the disturbing grittiness of its 1974 predecessor. Following that "afternoon of August 18, 1973" when Sally Hardesty was the lone survivor of what is recorded as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, two obnoxious Dallas college kids call into K-OKLA's Red River Rock 'n' Roll request line, harassing radio station deejay Stretch (Caroline Williams) while they are being attacked by Leatherface's chainsaw on the road in their Mercedes. Dennis Hopper goes cartoonishly waaaaay over-the-top as Lieutenant 'Lefty' Enright, a loony-tunes ex-Texas Ranger obsessed with revenge on the psychos for killing his brother Franklin Hardesty and whom might be just as crazy as the Sawyer clan or crazier. Meanwhile, Stretch tries to save her own skin from winding up a would-be dinner after she plays a tape recording of the slaughter on her live show. Leatherface, known as Bubba to brother Chop-Top (Bill Moseley) and cook daddy Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), takes a liking to Stretch. 

Not only because it had a bigger budget, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2" is a different monster, more wacky and bizarro than outright scary, although there is one surprising jump scare in the radio station, and more gore, more high-pitched screaming, and more noisy saw buzzing. Director Hooper's crack at demented black comedy to leaven the horrific violence is campy, gross, and twisted—such as Leatherface's daddy, Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow, the only actor to return), winning a chili cookoff contest from his secret ingredient being, uh, human flesh, and 'Nam vet Chop-Top constantly scratching at the metal plate on his head with a hanger and eating it. As heroine Stretch, Williams is certainly plucky and charismatic with some impressive lungs, being put through the wringer. 

When Leatherface dry-humps Stretch with his chainsaw and does a wiggle dance, it's oddly amusing. There's no farmhouse, but the Sawyers' lair has been changed to the underworld of an amusement park, a true house of horrors and its mile-upon-mile-long caverns decorated with twinkle lights and skeletal victims. And there's another dinner scene with Grandpa, in his chair and still as fast as Jesse James at 137 years old. The climactic chainsaw duel between Lefty and Leatherface is as off-the-wall as it sounds. Ending with a memorably loopy but abrupt finale with Stretch dancing around chainsaw in hand, this is a macabre goof on the stark horror show.




Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)
81 min., rated R.
Grade: C

"Violence is no answer to violence," says a character early on in "Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III." They must not have met Leatherface and his favorite power tool yet. Headed to Florida, California friends Michelle (Kate Hodge) and Ryan (William Butler) unwisely take the backroads through Texas. After getting into an accident with Army survivalist Benny (Ken Foree, fondly remembered from "Dawn of the Dead"), the three become stranded in the backwoods, run afoul of the human flesh-masked, chainsaw-buzzing Leatherface, and turn up dead meat to his demented Sawyer clan of cannibal killers. 

With no ties to original creators Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, "Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III" isn't really a sequel, just a rehashing of the classic 1974 original. It's a serviceable slasher flick at least, but has little of its granddaddy's intensity or sly use of suggestion. And for some reason, it adds new members to the Sawyer family, including cowboy brother Tex (a lesser-known Viggo Mortensen), the murderous little girl (Jennifer Banko) with bad teeth and a skeleton doll, and electronic voice-boxed Mama Sawyer (Miriam Byrd-Nethery). And what's with half-witted Texas perves snapping photos of interlopers and trying to sell it to them? And why introduce a useless female survivor if you're just going to do away with her anyway? 

Director Jeff Burr ("Stepfather II") builds promising momentum in the first half and creates some atmosphere in the woods, but the sick black humor doesn't work here, and a heavy-metal score is oddly placed in the final act. In order to reeive an R rating by the MPAA, extensive cuts were made to the supposedly X-rated violence that resulted in some choppy, less gory kills. Be a better person and forget this misbegotten sequel, but rent the original. 


Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre) (1994)
95 min., rated R.
Grade: D

"Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation," the fourth movie in Leatherface's own series, finally saw the light of day in 1997 after being shot in 1993 and sitting on the shelf. In this cruel, torturous sequel/remake of the 1974 horror-trendsetter, mousy high schooler Jenny (Renée Zellweger) and three other classmates leave their prom, end up lost on a dirt road in the backwoods, and stumble upon the redneck family of perverse, chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Here, Leatherface (Robert Jacks) is portrayed as a pansy, yelping tranvestite, so the tagline ("If looks could kill, he wouldn't need a chainsaw") is incorrect. 

Zellweger's Jenny is the obligatory, screaming Final Girl like Marilyn Burns' Sally, but a stuntwoman is seen doing most of the work, in which Jenny jumps out of a two-story window, climbs up a TV antenna, leaps into the air and grabs a telephone cable, and then falls through the roof of a greenhouse. Matthew McConaughey must have studied Dennis Hopper's acting method, devouring the scenery as sleazy mechanic Vilmer with a remote-control leg, and Tonie Perensky is a ball of energy as Darla, his sexy girlfriend. And Lisa Newmyer is positively annoying as chatty airhead Heather. 

This head-scratching freakshow is nowhere near as scary or powerful as its primal predecessor, without the cannibalism and chainsaw killings. Although someone does get set on a meat hook. The saw feels rusty by now, despite writer-director Kim Henkel (who produced and co-wrote the original story with Tobe Hooper) throwing in nutty camp value just for kicks and a stupid twist about the government and aliens that makes no sense. Texas-born actors Zellweger and McConaughey would probably like to forget this buzzing, screaming mess, which is probably why they disowned it, then moved onto bigger and better things.



The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) 
98 min., rated R.
Grade: B

Needless but gruesomely bloody, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is a slicked-up, slimed-up re-imagining of 1974's shoestring-budgeted horror classic. This production is for a new, MTV-ish generation, and keeps "Chain Saw" as one word this time, but it's no more a remake than any of its three sequels. Keeping with the '70s time frame, the story is not identical in its details but virtually the same old formula, five friends holed up in rural Texas being besieged by a hulking, chainsaw-wielding madman. It's August 18, 1973, and five young people—couple Erin (Jessica Biel) and Kemper (Eric Balfour), horny Andy (Mike Vogel) and his flavor-of-the-week hookup Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and pot-smoking fifth wheel Morgan (Jonathan Tucker)—are headed to Dallas for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. On a dusty country road, they pick up a hitchhiker; instead of a crazy-eyed member of the psycho family that slices his hand with a knife, it's a shell-shocked, traumatized young woman (Lauren German) who babbles "they're all dead" before shooting herself through the mouth. Naturally, the horrified teens have a fateful run-in with the creepy Hewitt fam, most dangerous of all being Thomas Hewitt/Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski), who just wants a new face to cover his deformity. 


More brutally graphic, intense, and violent than 29 years earlier, 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is still quite high-tensioned, unsettling, and stylishly crafted as well. Debuting feature director Marcus Nispel, with a résumé of making music videos, captures the time period and shows a grungy, grimy visual style paired with the original Daniel Pearl's cinematography and Glen Scantlebury's tight, not overly choppy, editing. That nifty dolly shot through the hole of the female hitchhiker's head and van window takes place of the original's impressive under-the-swing dolly. Leatherface wearing Kemper's face as a mask when he's chasing Erin is a creepy touch. Nasty business with a meat hook will make the squeamish, and maybe even the tough, clench their teeth. A climactic chase between Erin and Leatherface through the woods and a literal slaughterhouse (Blair Meat Co. to be exact) is the most tense and exciting chase on screen in quite a while. 

But as for quibbles, newcoming screenwriter Scott Kosar makes the story more complicated and repetitive than the spare original (people run back to the family nuthouse too many times). Jessica Biel pulls off an emotionally and physically challenging performance with raw intensity as gutsy “final girl” Erin (taking over for Marilyn Burns' Sally), permitting her to scream, shake, bawl, and sprint in a rolled-up T-shirt and close-fitting blue jeans. R. Lee Ermey, intense and deranged as the vile, blustering Sheriff Hoyt, looks like he'll explode any minute. He's as twistedly memorable and sickly funny here as he was playing Sgt. Hartman in "Full Metal Jacket." 

Nispel and producer Michael Bay probably figured their audience goes into a horror film expecting to be fed gore rather than feeling the power of suggestion, which Tobe Hooper's film relied on. And no one will be savvy enough to know that it's loosely inspired by the true crimes of Ed Gein, so they slapped on a gimmicky "inspired by a true story" tagline. There's even wraparound footage (à la "The Blair Witch Project) of a cop doing a walk-through of the Hewitt house and another narration by John Larroquette. Grim and down-and-dirty, but with more bodily fluids, innards, and brain matter, this "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" redux still packs a palpable sense of terror. 




The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)
84 min., rated R.
Grade: C


When Hollywood's done with ideas for remakes, bring on the prequels! Behold the beautiful birth of cute little Leatherface/Thomas Hewitt from his morbidly obese mother's womb in a grimy slaughterhouse. Can't you just see it now; a baptism with ooze and blood! In "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning," Vietnam-bound brothers, Eric (Matt Bomer) and Dean (Taylor Handley), and their tubetopped girlfriends, Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) and Bailey (Diora Baird), get into an accident driving across Texas, in which they are then kidnapped, tortured, and killed by that family of cannibalistic degenerates, including facially deformed Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) who likes to play with his buzzing toy. The Hewitt clan will never go hungry again. 

Billed as an origin prequel to the stylish 2003 re-imagining of the horror classic—to possibly shed light on the tormented past and psyche of the notorious Leatherface—this lean but redundant programmer just goes through the slashing motions, again. For horror fans, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning" isn't a bad slasher flick in its own right, that is if you like your "chainsaw massacre-ing" brutal, mean, graphic, and ugly. Mark those words, there will be slicing of flesh and sawing of bodies for the whole family! Plucky “final girl” Brewster and her engaging hip-huggers, as well as R. Lee Ermey's blackly comic reprise as the perverted, abusive drill-sergeant Uncle Charlie/Sheriff Hoyt somewhat lift this out of the mire. And despite some overly dank, shaky cinematography and cramped framing, director Jonathan Liebesman brings out a '70s grindhouse style, stages a great jeep flip, and gets a decently tense chase out of Brewster and Bryniarski from the farmhouse to the slaughterhouse. 

But all the queasy gore splatter and loud stings on the soundtrack take precedence over actual scares and originality. And any hope of uncertainty starts to slacken since it's obvious the bad guys will win in the end. This is labeled "the beginning," but hopefully it's really the end. No offense, Texas. 

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